In many ways, Khartoum is a city of sharp contrasts. A donkey cart, overtaken by a brand new BMW on the same road might seem like an impossible scene, but it is a real one you can actually witness. The huge economic gap between the rich and the poor is the most obvious, but there are other contrasts that exist below the surface.
Wild parties in the religious conservative city where alcohol is illegal under Islamic law happen quite frequently behind closed doors. At these parties you can expect the unexpected.
Some mansions in the middle of farms along the Nile were built by their rich owners with the sole purpose of making them easily convertible into dance clubs – they are designed with built-in sound systems wired to speakers and subwoofers in all rooms, including the bathroom. Wherever you go, the DJ’s choice of hip-hop and trance music goes with you. The alcohol flows freely. Sometimes cocaine, marijuana, heroin and ecstasy “flow” along too. Many girls arrive at the scene covered up from head to toe, except for the hands and face. Once inside, they take off their long garments to reveal the scant stylish outfits underneath them. Outside, private security stands on guard to make sure the religious police don’t come. If they do show up, they’re simply bribed away.
The economic boom fueled by the mostly Chinese-drilled oil is attracting Sudanese from overseas back to Khartoum again. All of this would have been hardly unimaginable about fifteen years ago when political oppression and the North-South civil war were at their peaks. But now, the Sudanese diaspora, slowly returning to their homeland is bringing along with it tons of money and a lifestyle foreign to Sudanese culture, hence the increasingly common wild parties.
When the National Islamic Front came to power after their coup in 1989, they had the popular support of many in Khartoum. Dr. Hassan al-Turabi, the man responsible for hosting Bin Laden in Sudan during the early nineties, was a very charismatic person back then. He was the spiritual leader of the NIF, nicknamed “The Salvation Party”. They gave the people the kind of promises they wanted to hear and al-Turabi cleverly mixed Islam with his self-serving rhetoric which made it more believable and convincing.
The change was drastic. All of a sudden, Khartoum had its own moral police. Torturers reportedly trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard silenced dissidents.
Wedding celebrations incorporating traditional Sudanese bridal dances were forced to tone down their supposedly un-Islamic aspects. Many musicians and singers were forced out of business. The NIF’s version of Islamic law was essentially shoved down everybody’s throats. Sudanese Christian Copts were greatly affected and left the country in large numbers.
By the late nineties, most people had finally woken up to the immense corruption occurring under NIF rule and realized the ugly truth.
President Omar al-Bashir made the wise decision of expelling al-Turabi out of government and put him under house arrest. What followed after that was the positively monumental Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the South and North. Thanks to Western pressure led by the United States, Sudan’s bloody civil war which killed millions finally came to a halt after two long decades.
With more time and energy to focus on constructive efforts, and with US sanctions still in place, Khartoum began looking East for opportunities to develop the vast oil fields of the country. The Chinese gladly rushed in to answer the call. Other countries, including Western ones followed suit. The result? Previously, there were no Westerners to be seen except diplomats or those working for humanitarian agencies and the UN. Back then the sight of a Chinese man roaming the streets of the Sudanese capital was like an elephant walking in Antarctica. There were hardly any Southeast Asians. When they began arriving, locals used to point at them and jokingly call them “Bruce Lee”. Now they’re a very regular daily sight in Khartoum.
The influx of foreigners and the returning Sudanese diaspora have greatly changed the face of the city. The peace agreement and economic boom had a noticeable effect too. The city is becoming more open. Upper-middle class Arab-oriented Sudanese girls are increasingly becoming more influenced by what they see on Arab music television channels, and by popular American singers like Beyonce and Alicia Keys.
In comparison with the city’s cruel political past, even the press is experiencing more freedom, albeit far from enough. Secularists and freedom-loving Muslims who believe in a liberal democracy are becoming more vocal. Islamist nuts don’t have complete reign anymore. Anti-Americanism remains alive and well, but a lot of it is just hollow. The typical Sudanese anti-American will curse the US government and mocks the country’s morals, or lack thereof, and then jump with joy at the possibility of a Green Card.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, a small and steadily growing Chinatown has taken root. Besides attending parties behind closed doors, many foreigners like to go and hang out in the restaurants of Chinatown to enjoy the “special tea”, which is basically cold beer secretly served inside a large Chinese-style tea pot.
Predictably the religious police turn a blind eye. “Uncomfortable” Chinese and Western expatriates aren’t good for the economy.
The sharp contrasts and disparities of Khartoum, rooted in its history, persist and don’t look like they’re going anywhere any time soon. The dangerous trend of focusing development in the capital at the expense of the rest of the country still sadly continues.
The oil-propelled economic boom still hasn’t even begun to benefit the average Sudanese, as the elite is enjoying it immensely. Corruption remains a major problem. The religious police continue to harass people from time to time even as the wild parties persist behind closed doors. The implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement isn’t going smoothly. Democratization efforts are facing stiff challenges.
And while all of this happens, far away from the city, Darfur still suffers, but hardly anything registers in the collective psyche of most of Khartoum’s residents. They have too many worries and distractions of their own.
Drima is a freedom-loving, Afro-Arab Sudanese Muslim. When he’s not busy studying or pursuing other endeavors, he makes his own music and blogs at The Sudanese Thinker.